Racing is, and always has been, about more than cars going around in circles. It’s about more than the trophies and flying flags.
Racing, and sports in general, is something that has bridged generations, shared between parents and children, and their children’s children.
In a way, that’s why it’s difficult to attract scores of young fans to the sport. The deep love of a sport is more easily inherited and shared than simply stumbled upon. But in most other sports, that doesn’t mean just watching.
In stick-and-ball sports, there are opportunities for youngsters to get involved at an intimate level with the game through participating, and their parents can be involved as well as volunteers or coaches.
While there are opportunities for kids to race in some places, there’s not an organized effort to make racing in some form available to youth on a large organized scale. Which is a shame, because at some level, not having that at the bottom hurts the sport all the way to the very top.
Youngsters who get involved in motorsports, whether it’s in go-karts, quarter-midgets, junior dragsters or something on two wheels, have to have two things: a track and a vehicle to race. That limits access to racing severely and certainly eliminates the ability for many children, particularly in urban areas and lower-income families.
So is there a way to change that? Youth sports leagues, like Pop Warner football and Little League baseball, are national initiatives that allow for rules oversight as well as opportunities for national-level championships. They’re widely available. So how could that look when racing is involved?
Probably the easiest race vehicles to use would be go-karts, because they allow for a variety of age groups and could be run on a temporary course, adding accessibility in urban areas. Karts could be owned by the league and equally prepared, distributed to race teams at each event. Teams would have limited areas in which to tune on the karts and opportunity to practice before any races.
A team could consist of a number of youth with an adult coach. They could be structured with drivers from each age group, maybe three or four per group with one coach. Race day might look like practice for most of the day, with races in the late afternoon and early evening.
Let’s say a team has three children of each age group and each team is assigned one kart per age group (or every couple, based on size and power). That means there would be three races for each age group so that each child would race once per event. Lap counts would be based on age as well, with older kids racing longer events than the littlest ones.
The rest of the team would be responsible for helping to prepare cars between races: checking tire pressures, changing tires, checking and making small adjustments. In other words, in addition to driving, they would learn the basics of maintaining their cars under the eye of the coach, with some parent volunteers to help direct. In addition, each child could serve as crew chief for one race as well, with responsibilities varying by age.
Team responsibilities, of course, would also increase with age, with the older kids learning more and more about prepping race vehicles. They might not age out ready to be a NASCAR crew chief, but they could wind up with some real-life mechanical skills, which serve anyone well, and for some, provide a career path in some form of mechanics, racing or not. Their turn as crew chief would teach leadership. Driving teaches planning ahead but having the flexibility to change a plan on the fly if something happens on track, and it teaches respect for other drivers and team members. Youth sports give children real, transferable skills, and racing is no different.
Most kids who play in Little League don’t go on to the majors (though some do). Most kids who raced in a youth league probably wouldn’t wind up racing for a living, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a national youth program, because there is so much to be gained.
There’s an opportunity for kids and their families to enjoy racing on a much more intimate level than simply watching. Hobby racers could serve as coaches and mentors, allowing them to share their passion. Being a part of racing will deepen the love of the sport for everyone involved.
It could provide opportunity for so many children who don’t currently have the means to race or anywhere to do it. Temporary tracks would allow racing even in city settings, allowing for real diversity. Because the league would own the vehicles, cost to children would be lower (they’d still need to pay a fee, of course, to maintain the vehicles, as most other youth leagues have as well for field maintenance and other expenses, and racers would need firesuits and helmets). Scholarships could help offset fees, and teams could hold fundraisers as well.
The bottom line is that there is so much that a nationally recognized youth racing league could offer to children and their families, and to the sport of racing, too. It could take many forms, mine is merely one suggestion. But racing is about more than just watching a race—and it could be about more still.